The Song of the Lark

by Willa Cather
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1098

Thea Kronborg is the daughter of the Swedish Methodist pastor in the small town of Moonstone, Colorado. She is a tall, fair girl with grave, candid eyes, and her shy awkwardness hides restless depths of thought and feeling. Although she grows up in a lively household of brothers and sisters, she has no real friends among children her own age. Of her family, only her aunt, Tilly Kronborg, seems to understand her; but Tilly is so ridiculous in her speech and in her actions that neighbors only laugh when she tells them that the day is coming when Thea will make Moonstone sit up and take notice.

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One of her few friends is Dr. Howard Archie, the town physician, who, when she was eleven, saved Thea’s life during an attack of pneumonia. He is unhappily married to a mean-spirited woman who wants only three things in life: to have her cigar-smoking husband away from home as much as possible, to keep her house closed against dust, and to live on food from cans. Having no children of his own, Dr. Archie loves Thea in a fatherly way, and he often wonders what will become of a girl so passionate and determined.

Another friend of her childhood is gruff, disreputable old Professor Wunsch, her music teacher. A drunkard, but at one time a talented pianist, he drifted casually into Moonstone, and Fritz Kohler, the German tailor, pitied him and gave him a home. The two old men, both with memories of their younger years in Europe, become cronies. Fiercely resenting demands of family and school upon her time, he gives Thea her first glimpse of artistic endeavor, just as the Kohler house gives her a knowledge of true Old World simplicity and friendliness. Wunsch, unable to understand Thea’s stubborn reserve, compares her to the yellow prickly pear blossoms of the desert.

Through these friends, she also knows Spanish Johnny from the Mexican settlement on the outskirts of town. He is another wanderer and drunkard, who always comes back to Moonstone and his patient wife to recover from his debauches. The neighbors are scandalized when the minister’s daughter goes with the doctor and Wunsch to hear Spanish Johnny sing Mexican folk songs. Mrs. Kronborg, wiser than her husband, quietly allows Thea to go her own way. Still another man who takes great interest in Thea is Ray Kennedy, a railroad conductor on the Denver run. He is waiting until she grows up; then he intends to marry her. In his own way, he is the most protective of all.

Thea is fifteen years old when old Wunsch, in a drunken frenzy, smashes the furniture in the Kohler house and leaves town. After his departure, Thea takes over his pupils. A year later, Ray, injured in a wreck, dies, leaving Thea six hundred dollars in insurance. Dr. Archie advises her to take the money and study music for a winter in Chicago. After much discussion, the Kronborgs agree, if the doctor will take her there and get her settled.

In Chicago, living in cheap rooms and earning extra money by singing in a church choir, Thea is homesick for the sand dunes and deep, silent snows of Moonstone. She hates the city, but she works hard for Andor Harsanyi, under whom she studies. Like Wunsch, the brilliant young musician is baffled by qualities of Thea’s imagination and will. He is almost in despair over her when he discovered that her real talent is in voice. Relieved yet sorry, he tells her that she will never make a great pianist. She might, however, become a great singer.

The next summer, Thea goes back to Moonstone. There she disturbs her family by refusing to sing at the funeral of Maggie Evans, a neighbor. Persuaded by her mother, she finally consents. Later, she shocks the town and disgusts her brothers and sisters by going to a party in the Mexican village and singing with Spanish Johnny and his friends. Returning to Chicago, she studies under Madison Bowers, a teacher whom she both admires and dislikes. At his studio, she meets for the first time Fred Ottenburg, son of a rich brewer and an amateur musician. Bowers is cynically amused that the wealthy young man is attracted to the strange girl from the West. Through Ottenburg’s influence, Thea is given singing engagements at the parties of his fashionable friends.

That winter, Thea catches a severe cold. Her convalescence is slow, and she feels weak and dispirited. Ottenburg, concerned for her welfare, urges her to go away for a rest at his father’s ranch in Arizona. There Thea discovers a West different from the crude, vulgar Moonstone she knows. Prowling among the cliff dwellers’ ruins in Panther Canyon, she feels herself part of an older West, a land closer to the everyday simplicities of sun, wind, and water. Thoughts of those primitive people arouse her own half-awakened nature; the desert country, ancient but filled with relics of human endeavor, give her a realization of art as form given to hope and experience.

Rested, and grateful to Ottenburg, she accepts his proposal of marriage when he arrives at the ranch. On the way to Mexico, however, she learns that he already has a neurotic, disabled wife. Hurt and shocked, she refuses his offers of assistance, borrows money from Dr. Archie, and goes to Germany for further study.

Years pass. By that time, Dr. Archie is a widower, his wife having been killed when some cleaning fluid exploded. He moved to Denver to take charge of some mining investments that prospered. From time to time, reports reach him of Thea’s progress abroad, and he is pleased when Ottenburg brings word that she sang Elisabeth at the Dresden Opera. He alone understands why Thea, at a critical point in her career, is unable to return to Moonstone for her mother’s funeral.

He is in New York on that great night when the sudden illness of a famous singer gave Thea her chance to sing Sieglinde in Die Walküre (1856) at the Metropolitan Opera House. He and Ottenburg, whom Thea forgives, hear the performance together, both pleased and proud because they are the two men who meant most in her career.

By 1909, Tilly is the last Kronborg in Moonstone. She never tires of boasting to her neighbors about Thea’s successes and her marriage to wealthy Ottenburg after his wife’s death. Best of all, she likes to remind the townspeople that Thea once sang in Moonstone at Maggie Evans’s funeral.

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